On the day after Jesus’ death, it looked as if whatever small mark he left on the world would rapidly disappear. Instead, his impact on human history has been unparalleled.
After his disappearance from earth, the days of his unusual influence began. That influence is what this book is about. Rightly seen, this effect on past and current history will cause any thoughtful person — apart from their religious ideas about Christianity—to ask, “Who was this man?”
You can miss him in historical lists for many reasons, perhaps the most obvious being the way he lived his life. Jesus did not loudly and demonstrably defend his movement in the spirit of a rising political or military leader. He did not lay out a case that history would judge his brand of belief superior in all future books. He did not start by telling his disciples, “Here are proofs of my divinity; affirm them and I’ll accept you.”
Normally when someone dies, their impact on the world immediately begins to recede. As I write this, our world marks the passing of digital innovator Steve Jobs. Someone wrote that ten years ago our world had Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, and Steve Jobs; now we have no Jobs, no Cash, and no Hope. But Jesus inverted this normal human trajectory, as he did so many others. Jesus’ impact was greater a hundred years after his death than during his life; it was greater still after five hundred years; after a thousand years his legacy laid the foundation for much of Europe; after two thousand years he has more followers in more places than ever.
If someone’s legacy will outlast their life, it usually becomes apparent when they die. On the day when Alexander the Great or Caesar Augustus or Napoleon or Socrates or Mohammed died, their reputations were immense. When Jesus died, his tiny failed movement appeared clearly at an end. If there were a kind of “Most Likely to Posthumously Succeed” award given on the day of death to history’s most influential people, Jesus would have come in dead last.
His life and teaching simply drew people to follow him. He made history by starting in a humble place, in a spirit of love and acceptance, and allowing each person space to respond. He deliberately placed himself on a collision course with Rome, where he would have been crushed like a gnat. And he was crushed.
And yet …
Jesus’ vision of life continues to haunt and challenge humanity. His influence has swept over history like the tail of a comet, bringing his inspiration to influence art, science, government, medicine, and education; he has taught humans about dignity, compassion, forgiveness, and hope.
Since the day he did come — as G. K. Chesterton put it—”It has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world; since the rumor is that God had left his heavens to set it right.”
Jesus is history’s most familiar figure. His impact on the world is immense and non-accidental.
Great men have sometimes tried to secure immortality by having cities named after them; the ancient world was littered with cities that Alexander named Alexandria and Caesar named Caesarea. While Jesus was alive, he had no place to live. Yet today I live in the San Francisco Bay area, which has its name because a man named Francis was once a follower of this man Jesus. Our state capital is named Sacramento, because Jesus once had a meal with his followers—the Last Supper— that became known as a Sacrament. You cannot look at a map without being reminded of this man.
Powerful regimes have often tried to establish their importance by dating the calendar around their existence. Roman emperors would date events according to the years of their reign; they marked past history by the founding of Rome itself. The French Revolution tried to enlighten everyone with a calendar that marked the reign of Reason. The USSR dated time from the deposing of the tsar and theoretically giving power to the people. It formed the “League of the Militant Godless” in the twenties to stamp out faith; a 1929 magazine cover showed two workers dumping Jesus out of a wheelbarrow. But the League’s leader, Yemelian Yaroslavsky, grew frustrated at the stubbornness of faith. “Christianity is like a nail,” he said. “The harder you strike it, the deeper it goes.”
The idea of Jesus trying to impose a calendar on anyone was laughable. The beginning of his ministry was carefully noted by Luke according to the Roman calendar: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene.” From complete obscurity, Jesus came to public attention for the blink of an eye — maybe three years, maybe as few as one. Yet today, every time we glance at a calendar or date a check, we are reminded that chronologically at least, this incredibly brief life has become somehow the dividing line of history.
John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).